experiences in elevating the representation of women in leadership
A letter from business leaders
Capturing the diversity advantage
most Australian companies, the transition from Phase 1—Getting in the
game, to Phase 2—Getting serious, will be most relevant. However, a number
of our companies have been in Phase 2 for some time. Some of us see a path to
continued improvement, with a payoff that will go further than just gender
balance. Woolworths and CBA’s experiences, starting on page 30, show how
individual companies have navigated Phases 1 and 2, and how they are beginning
to think about the next phase of their journey.
collective experience tells us that after steady wins, many of us reach a
plateau. Most of us have weak spots in our organisations where we’ve still
made little progress.
Why do we
reach this plateau? We believe it is because deeply embedded cultural factors
get in the way. Many of us speak of members of our own management teams who
don’t share our confidence in the vision. Exhibit 15 suggests that our
efforts haven’t yet fully translated into initiative-taking in the broader
organisation. As such, the shift from Phase 2 to Phase 3 is about tackling the
underlying cultural barriers that work against the goal of greater
representation of women in leadership.
organisations and their leaders will struggle with the business imperative to
shift beyond Phase 2, most of us hope for real gains beyond the plateau. Part of
the challenge of describing this phase of the journey is that few of our
companies would claim to have achieved the aspiration of a culture that fully
supports gender balance.
this, we can take encouragement from other cultural transitions we have made in
areas such as customer service, collaborative leadership and safety. This
requires an integrated change program.
safety analogy, we know that safety cultures take decades to build. However,
leaders do not negotiate safety objectives. In safety cultures, safety metrics
receive focus akin to financial ones. Data is shared openly with an expectation
of accountability. In a safety culture, the CEO is a role model. The CEO
complies with on site policy, even when in the CBD head office. Before
descending every staircase, force of habit sees them conclude their phone call,
and return the handset to their pocket.
cultures, there is a belief that every injury is preventable and accidents are
not met with an attempt to excuse. Every person in the organisation, from newest
to most experienced, is responsible for safety. Safety cultures are blindingly
obvious to new joiners—a three-day safety induction builds capability and
sets the tone. Safety ‘shares’, where recent incidents are
highlighted, provide regular reminders and reinforce accountability. In a safety
culture, people with poor records are not promoted—a contractor who
jaywalks outside the head office is not invited back.
what our organisations would look like if gender balance was ingrained in our
culture the way safety is. We wouldn’t shy away from a ‘zero
defect’ type of goal. We would not tolerate behaviours that were careless
or inconsistent with a culture of gender balance. No leader would be promoted if
they had a poor record on diversity. We would be open about failure—we
would conduct challenging reviews of our mistakes to ensure we didn’t
repeat them. We would operate with more flexibility.
don’t believe that the imperative for cultural change will be solely
elevating the representation of women in leadership in itself. It is more likely
to be part of a broader transformational change. Says Ralph Norris of CBA, ‘What really matters is changing underlying mindsets and behaviours.
We’ve come a long way in our journey towards a customer service culture. I
believe that diversity is a big part of the next stage in our cultural
in culture requires engaging a much broader cross section of the organisation.
In Phase 2, the centre of gravity shifted from HR to senior leadership. Now the
whole system is engaged—from top to middle to front line.
the benefit of gender balance as part of a broader change, there are a number of
actions to focus on:
Develop inclusive leaders who harness
believes that building leadership capability is at the foundation of its culture
and future success. Says David Thodey of Telstra, ‘in
my mind, gender (diversity) and inclusiveness is a broader leadership issue.
Great leaders know how to get the best out of their people regardless of their
gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.’
that the highest performing leaders are inspiring. They bring out the best in
others. They motivate others by creating common purpose and building on
individual strengths. They foster collaborative leadership and decision making.
They engage others and they turn difficult situations into learning moments.
They also create the energy to sustain change.
result, these leaders do things differently. They develop others and build
accountability through coaching and feedback. Most importantly, gender does not
get in the way. They also build high performing teams to execute faster and get
Swiegers at Deloitte
says, ‘I’m most proud that our efforts to build a team that values gender
diversity are paying off. It’s common now for our Practice Leads to
proudly share stories and evidence of their successes in developing, sponsoring
and promoting female
Weed out entrenched
biases. We find that
corporate and individual mindsets, particularly biases, can be hard to shift.
Our experience is consistent with McKinsey & Company research in the US that
provides evidence of common biases, and how they sabotage promotions processes.
example, this research shows that many managers commonly overlook women for
certain jobs. One cause of this is ‘best intentions’—wanting
to prevent a woman from failing because ‘everybody knows you can’t
put a woman into that particular slot’ or ‘that slot could never be
done part time’.
aspect outlined is that often women are seen as more risky choices for open
positions, and therefore managers look more to their experience than their
potential (whereas men are more confidently promoted on the basis of potential).
also a sense that women must watch what they say—in a masculine world,
they can seem aggressive when men seem assertive. This can create real
self-consciousness and a sense that women are not truly accepted in their
organisations. It can also reduce perceived and actual performance. Also, men
will often give more direct and personal feedback to men than to
women—often with best intentions—but with significant lost
As a first
step, many of us have introduced training or workshops that seek to surface
unconscious bias that gets in the way of merit-based appointments and
flexibility. Cameron Clyne at NAB believes it is a critical issue to
address, ‘How do we counter it, how do we change the way we select, recruit, induct
to overcome that unconscious bias within an organisation that may lead us down a
more narrow recruitment and development path.’
almost 200 senior leaders at NAB will complete their Consciously Addressing
Unconscious Bias program. The lessons learned will then be applied in everyday
decision-making processes that commonly occur in the workplace. As a part of
this program, each leader receives one-on-one coaching to support them in
recognising their own biases and addressing these on an individual
Exhibit 15: Building commitment to gender diversity is
Exhibit 16: Shifting culture to build gender diversity
at Rio Tinto Alcan Bell Bay
recently sponsored an Australasian tour of a diversity expert that focused on
the business case for building more inclusive companies. Awareness sessions with
800 leaders, including ANZ’s top 200 executives, community groups and
clients, served to surface issues and encourage additional actions to address
mindsets that might work against women’s advancement. This approach will
be cascaded across the organisation, asking leaders to develop personal plans
for building a more inclusive business.
efforts have focused on moving from a compliance-based approach to a culture
that builds inclusive leaders. This approach has involved vigorous work to
change attitudes and behaviours both internally and externally. Engaging men,
and all leaders across the organisation, has been a priority. One example of
this approach is ‘Kitchen Table’, a series of group-level
discussions, aimed at fostering conversation and shifting mindsets around
diversity and inclusion.
of a ‘Kitchen Table’ discussion, senior leaders in each Business
Unit are sent granular data about their specific groups’ diversity
objectives, performance against them, and gaps that might exist. Leaders are
engaged in an open discussion about their own group’s story and dynamics.
They are invited to come up with the reasons and biases that might be getting in
the way, together with solutions to improve.
is on shifting mindsets and individual behaviours by holding a mirror to each
part of the organisation and the role individual managers play, rather than
applying ‘one-size fits all’ programs. Action plans are then owned
by the group’s leaders, not by HR, with leaders directly accountable for
inclusive approaches in their everyday team leadership.
Bell Bay provides an example of shifting mindset and behaviours to those more
supportive of gender balance. Exhibit 16 details how Bell Bay doubled the share
of women working on site within two years. This story highlights the investment
required to shift mindsets, and the payoff for doing so.
Bay, many workers believed that having more women on site would hurt the
site’s safety record. To address this, rosters were analysed for
correlation between gender and accidents. Others expressed concern that women
weren’t strong enough. In response, a consultant looked at physical
requirements for roles and at how women’s capabilities met these
instances, the management team worked hard to listen—without immediately
refuting staff concerns. In Rio Tinto’s fact-based culture, the key was
providing evidence that more women wouldn’t lead to more incidents or to
the job not being done properly.
this information, and supported by diversity champions with experience of
working with women, management was able to build a culture that would support
greater diversity—with very strong results.
Bell Bay managed to reach its goal of moving the share of women from six to
almost twelve percent in the two year timeframe. Management and staff alike felt
strongly that Bell Bay was a better place to work.
So, we can
all agree that improvement requires changing underlying mindsets and behaviours
across the organisation. To do so, we must understand what exactly it is in our
culture that is standing in the way. Is it a rigid image of what success and a
career path looks like? Is it fear of working with people who are different? Is
it tradition? Is it fear of change?
Take flexibility from marginal to
tells us that the two biggest barriers to women progressing in organisations are
the ‘anytime/anywhere’ business culture and the ‘double
burden’ on women who are likely to take up more family commitments outside
of work hours.
Exhibit 17: IBM flexibility example
the last decade, IBM has worked to foster a culture where flexibility is viewed
as a positive work choice with individual, team, organisation and client
benefits. Flexibility is a core part of IBM’s retention and engagement
strategy for both men and women.
focus is twofold: first, on how the world of work is evolving; and second, on
IBM’s goal of building an inclusive work environment.
companies agree that a genuine commitment to flexibility is fundamental to
elevating the representation of women in leadership.
Kelly of The Westpac Group ‘Flexibility
needs to be mainstreamed—it’s the key to unlocking a huge part of
all have flexible work policies in place and provide options for women and men
who are balancing work and family life, it remains unusual for men to take
advantage of them, or for women to take advantage of these policies at senior
levels. This suggests that there remains a prevailing bias in our organisations,
that you cannot be successful as a senior executive on a flexible program. There
may be fear among men and women that choosing a flexible work arrangement
creates the perception that they are no longer serious—that they are
(and men) feel forced to trade off work and family. We will have fully captured
the diversity advantage when those trade-offs aren’t as stark, and perhaps
don’t have to be made at all. Says Andrew Stevens from IBM, ‘Is
it career or family? Let’s make it both.’
than 10 years, IBM has worked hard to build flexibility into its culture. This
has required education for both managers and employees alike, as shown in
Exhibit 17. It has also particularly helped with the retention of women. Most of
us are a long way from having flexibility so ingrained in our cultures that
women (and men) will always see a way to stay engaged in the
Brands provides an early glimpse of what it might look like when
‘flexibility goes mainstream’. There is a strong belief across the
company that with today’s technology, going home for dinner often should
be possible for most, including senior leaders.
also a shared understanding around how appointments are made at Pacific Brands.
As Sue Morphet says, ‘first
we find the best person for the role, based on capability, and then if we can,
we will work to adapt to suit any specific need that the person might have for
Pacific Brands has achieved this without a formal set of programs and
initiatives—but rather through embedded cultural norms and role modelling.
While the organisation believes it has a long way to go before it captures the
full ‘diversity dividend’, it has achieved real progress.
Morphet believes that ultimate success will be characterised by organisations
structuring working models with the assumption that men and women equally carry
the responsibility of managing the household. In that state, the work and family
trade-off will be less stark. There will be enough senior roles that can
accommodate gender balance.
third phase, we aspire to a cultural shift. We recognise the need for inclusive
leaders who harness talent. We counter biases—both conscious and
unconscious. We also aspire to free our employees from the trade-off between
work and family by providing a path to senior roles that allow
mindsets are deeply entrenched, it will take years and perhaps multiple CEO
terms to sustain the journey. It takes more than the CEO and top team, the whole
organisation must engage in the cultural shift. However, by eliminating cultural
barriers, companies can move beyond the plateau. Diversity will become part of
our organisations’ DNA, and the way we operate. It will be sustainable and
will enable us to capture the leadership advantage.
we would encourage you to think about:
If you had
to design your organisation from a clean sheet so that you eliminated barriers
to women’s representation in leadership, what would it look
most of your executives are unlikely to be deliberately sexist, what are the
more subtle or unconscious biases that get in the way of elevating the
representation of women in leadership?
you had success in achieving cultural change in your career? What did you do?
How would those actions translate to creating a culture supportive of greater
any fundamental change, the path to achieving greater gender balance is not easy
or smooth. Not all levers are likely to be at the disposal of even the largest
companies. We all know that long-term investment is required. We also know that
if we take the pressure off we risk making no progress, or worse, sliding
Some of us
believe that fundamental policy reform at a national level is key to progress.
They point to changes in policies around childcare, immigration and tax as
essential enablers to elevating women’s representation in
believe that changes to the broader Australian culture would also help. However,
our collective experience tells is that there is much improvement to make before
these obstacles are true constraints.
don’t have all the answers, but we hope that by telling our stories, other
Australian companies can advance themselves along this journey, and in return
share with us their own lessons and breakthroughs.